Languages of Taiwan — Atayal (Tayal)

Our next language to look at takes us to the Hsuehshan mountains, in the central-north region of Taiwan. The Atayal language, Tayal, or 泰雅語 (Hanyu Pinyin: tài yă yŭ), yet another member of the Formosan languages, is spoken by some 10 000 people, a very tiny proportion of the ethnic Atayal people. Despite the small number of native speakers, the language bears many interesting features, such as male and female registers in some dialects, and its use in the creation of the Yilan Japanese Creole, one of the only Japanese creoles still used in this day, although shrouded in obscurity.

Mostly spoken in New Taipei City, Wulai County, and parts of Nantou County, Atayal is normally associated with the Seediq language, considered so closely related, some propose that Atayal is essentially the Tuuda dialect of Seediq, or that both should be treated under the Atayalic languages umbrella. The vast geographic distribution of the Atayal language has resulted in cross-cultural influences with the language, leading to Japanese, Seediq and Taroko influence in certain dialects. This slowly formed a rather diverse dialect cluster, where some speakers of one dialect may not understand speakers of other dialects. Here, we will look at Atayal and Seediq separately.

The Wulai Atayal Museum, New Taipei City

There are two main branches of Atayal dialects, namely the Squliq and Ci’uli dialect groups. While these differ slightly in the sounds they use, what sets these dialects apart were the words featured in the respective dialects. Generally, Atayal features 19 consonant and 6 vowel sounds, but this number varies based on dialect. Wenshui Atayal, or Mayrinax Atayal, has 18 consonants and 5 vowels, for instance. However, among these Atayalic languages and dialects, one distinguishing sound that sets them apart is the voiceless velar fricative consonant, the /x/ sound.

While Atayal, like Amis, uses the Latin alphabet to write the language, there are a few quirks some would like to take note. One might encounter words with seemingly impossible-to-pronounce consonant clusters, something that one might relate to Kartvelian languages like Georgian. Words like “mknhuway” (slow, Squliq dialect), “mtzyu” (six, Squliq dialect) and “mqwalax” (rain, Squliq dialect) would pop up, raising questions on how these words are pronounced. One must notice, that the schwa vowel is often not written in some dialects, hence reflecting as crazy consonant clusters in text.

Although Atayal generally bears many of the hallmarks of Austronesian language syntax, such as inclusive and exclusive “we”, and the strange lack of adverbs, there are several aspects in Atayal grammar that sets this apart from the rest of the languages in the family. For instance, Atayal seems to have four-way focus system, identified in Wenshui Atayal. A verb could change based on the type of focus, generally split into agent focus (AF), patient focus (PF), locative focus (LF) and instrumental or beneficial focus (IF/BF). Other elements in the clause can contain markers in the words depending on the focus, giving the sentence more clarity or meaning such as the expression of the concept of the adverb. Many verb affixes also exist, that give additional aspects, voice and various grammatical elements.

Probably one of the more interesting aspects of this language, particularly in certain dialects, is the different registers of vocabulary used between men and women. Wenshui Atayal has this feature, but even the elders do not know how this characteristic originated. Some proposed that the male register was intended to be a “secret” communication exclusively between men, but over time, the women understood the male register, and that the women spoke the original form of Wenshui Atayal. In modernity, this distinction between male and female registers is narrowing, with some female registers being preferentially used for some words and male registers for others.

From the get go, the Atayal language does not seem to share much cognates with other Austronesian languages, considering words such as those used in the numerical system. Within this group of words, there are hardly any words that sound familiar to many other Austronesian languages like Ilocano, Malay and Amis. For instance, the word for “five” in Atayal is “magal”, or “yamagal”, which sounds way different from “lima” in Amis, Malay and Ilocano.

Atayal numbers. “Five” in Atayal sounds nothing like “Lima” in Amis and many other Austronesian languages.

Just like the Amis language, if you want to learn the Atayal language, I have to tell you that many resources are in traditional Chinese. However, there is one central site that documents the words, dialogues, audio and pronunciation of Atayal, along with most of the other Formosan languages. With multimedia materials, translations of books and stories into respective indigenous languages, this serves as a platform for people to learn about the cultures and languages of Taiwan, as well as preserving the Formosan languages in the digital world. Access it here at: This is so detailed, that even known individual dialects are compiled, and users are prompted to choose a dialect to learn that falls under the target language.


The world of the Austronesian languages continue to amaze me, with Atayal’s use in the Yilan Japanese Creole for example. It is one of the few documented examples of indigenous languages blending together with Japanese as a means for communication between the Atayal people and the Japanese. This definitely calls for its own separate post, even though available resources are scarce, or available almost only in Japanese or Traditional Chinese. The Atayal language is interesting nonetheless, and we will be discussing the creole, and Seediq, in future posts in the series.

Further Reading

Rau, D., 1992. A Grammar Of Atayal. [online] Available from:

Featured Image: New Taipei City Government Police Department, found on Google Maps

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